The seventh and final season of Homicide: Life on the Street is an unfairly maligned run of episodes, though the antipathy is understandable considering the consensus opinion (one I don’t share) that Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) was the crux on which the Baltimore-set cop serial turned. Indeed, Pembleton was always the stand-out among the show’s rotating ensemble, though in hindsight I see that I never particularly bought into his character until he became relatively subdued and reflective in Homicide’s sixth season. So Pembleton’s absence in season seven (due to an impulsive, crisis-of-conscience retirement brought on by the cataclysmic events of the sixth season finale) doesn’t particularly bother me; if anything it forces the rest of the ensemble cast to step up and compensate, though the writers occasionally sabotage the actors’ efforts toward subtlety by throwing in a Pembleton-like character flaw/challenge here and there.
Thus, what probably played on paper as the season’s emotional high point—Vietnam vet Stu Gharty’s (Peter Gerety) nightmarish recollections of his war-addled past in “The Same Coin”—is undone by the writers’ verbose, melodramatic contrivances (Homicide is rarely good at dream sequences and this episode shows why) and by the unimaginative staging of guest director Lisa Cholodenko (she films Gharty’s climactic confessional scene as if rehearsing dinner theater). Such attempts to stir up the plot pot detract from Homicide’s observational strengths: it’s a show at its best when it leaves the characters to wander through the Balto wilderness as opposed to following overly schematic narrative lines.
Old school character Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) fares best in this regard. Nearly shot dead in the sixth season finale, Bayliss returns to the remodeled squad room spouting Zen aphorisms and fixing his compatriots with off-putting stares of enlightenment. Also more highly fluid in his sexual preferences, Bayliss drifts through the first part of season seven as a specter of sorts. The interest then comes in watching him stumble from his free-thinking heights to the lower depths of season’s end where he is viciously rebuked by several colleagues and driven to kill a man in cold blood (a plot thread left unresolved at series’s end, but addressed in the show’s superb TV-movie finale).
This season also welcomes Mike Giardello (Giancarlo Esposito), estranged son of squad leader Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), former beauty queen Renee Sheppard (Michael Michele), who’s always forced to downplay her looks in front of prying male eyes, and sarcastic new medical examiner Griscom (Austin Pendleton), always ready with an inappropriately morbid quip.
All 22 episodes of Homicide - The Complete Season 7 are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratios. Visually and aurally the set is on par with the more recent seasons of the show, meaning a bit more clear and colorful while still exhibiting such video-related issues as image combing and ghosting. Interesting, then, that these technological flaws seem to help the show aesthetically more than hurt it.
First up for extras is an audio commentary on the series finale "Forgive Us Our Trespasses" by writers Tom Fontana, James Yoshimura, and Julie Martin. It’s one of the better yakkers if only for Fontana’s story about the NBC suits who said Homicide could continue for an eighth season if the producers ditched most of the cast and moved Sheppard, Munch (Richard Belzer), and Ballard (Callie Thorne) to Florida where they would open a private detective agency! Next up is a near hour-long video interview (conducted in front of a live audience by TV critic David Bianculli) with Fontana, Yoshimura, writer David Simon, and executive producer Barry Levinson in which they each talk about their Homicide experience. One other video extra has Levinson accepting a Career Achievement Award and giving a brief speech in which Homicide is mentioned. Cast Biographies are also included.
A final note: Homicide was often aired out of intended sequence, a sad fact of television production that these box sets have rectified by reshuffling them into the producers’ preferred order. It’s similarly advertised here, but there is one episode ("A Case of Do or Die") that is clearly still misplaced: Based on the production code number and the story’s early New Year setting it should come in the 10th slot, right after the Christmas two-parter "Kellerman P.I." A similar case could be made for "Sideshow," the second part of a Law & Order/Homicide crossover that is 17th in production order and shown here in the 15th slot, though it’s not as glaring a misplacement.
The final farewell to a television masterpiece.